Taken in the big picture, there's far more randomness to hockey than other sports come playoff time. Bounces determine so much, as does hot or cold goaltending. The best teams don't always win, as is usually the case in the NBA, and the screwy, indefensible format has left us a Stanley Cup final four with teams rated 2, 6, 12 and 16 in the regular season in points.
But there doesn't seem to be too much random about another failure by the Washington Capitals.
Alexander Ovechkin has still never played in a conference final, let alone a Cup final. The Great Eight's teams are just 3-7 in Game Seven in his career after their 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh Wednesday night. Back-to-back Presidents Trophy seasons of 120 and 118 points have gone down the drain with second-round losses to Sidney Crosby & Co.
Wrote Dan Steinberg on Friday at WashingtonPost.com: "Had I been running the Capitals late Wednesday night, I would have fired every staffer from the head coach to the head cook, told half the players they'd be traded, and informed the other half that winning another Presidents Trophy would be a fireable offense."
Steinberg went on to say he calmed down with the benefit of 24 hours of hindsight but the point remains. Fans in DC are fed up with the Caps' spring failures. It seems like the players are too, judging by their comments Friday during the team's locker cleanout day. There's 11 players heading into some form of free agency, and the Caps' window seems to be getting smaller and smaller. General Manager Brian MacLellan had said this group had a two-year window. The two years are up. Where do they go now?
It seems unreasonable to think trading Ovechkin would be on the table. He has a cap hit of roughly $9.53 million for four more seasons. Who's taking that on for a player now in his 30s? Would any team be willing to give up the package the Capitals would require? And virtually the Caps' entire approach to building a team and marketing is centered around Ovechkin. Can they really change that now?
After three straight 50-goal seasons, Ovechkin had just 33 this season, his lowest total since 2011. He also had only 69 points. It's a cautionary tale for teams and fanbases who think they can ride one player to the promised land. Crosby has had plenty of help in Pittsburgh over the years. Ovechkin hasn't been good enough on his own, and had the most help on paper he's ever received this season. Still didn't matter.
"After two days when you lose, it's hard to say what to expect and what we should do," Ovechkin said Friday. "I think we have to take a deep breath and maybe in two weeks or three weeks just see what happened. Because right now it's just a situation where you're frustrated, you're angry, you still think about the Game Seven. And it's hard."
The Caps added T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Lars Eller up front. Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik were added to the defense and the Caps then got Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline in what they thought was the move to put them over the top. Shattenkirk now heads into free agency looking for a big payday but possible suitors like Toronto or the New York Rangers have to be wondering how good a move that would be based on the way he performed in the postseason. Oshie, Williams and defenseman Karl Alzner are also UFAs.
"Obviously, it's not working," Nicklas Backstrom said Friday.
Added Alzner, who might be a Sabres target: "This is a pretty good window that we had here, and unfortunately it's not there anymore. You can only get to the second round so many times before you have to think that something needs to be changed."
Ovechkin (46) and Backstrom (26) have combined to score 72 playoff goals in their careers, never getting past the second round. But it seems like owner Ted Leonsis expects to take another kick at the can and not undertake any kind of major rebuild.
And the fact remains the Caps won 55 and 56 games in the regular season the last two years. They were on a roll in Games Five and Six, dominating the Penguins. What if Ovechkin's one-timed laser doesn't hit the shaft of Marc-Andre Fleury's stick in the second period of Game Seven? They'll never know. Maybe they could be like the San Jose Sharks, a team with a litany of failures that finally broke through last year to make a Cup final.
Wrote Leonsis on his personal blog Friday: "I feel awful – almost numb, yet frustrated. I know many of our fans – locally and around the world – feel the same way. Sports teams impact the psyche of a city, and I feel terrible that we have let you down."
Leonsis acknowledged potential free agent losses but said he expects the club to retool and make another Cup run next spring.
"We have witnessed some incredible individual and team accomplishments, and I try not to lose sight of the incredible performances we witnessed between October and early April," he wrote. "But the playoffs, while incredibly exciting, have been heartbreaking. We have tried many things – some obvious and others discrete – to make ourselves a better playoff team. We will do our best to dissect and critically examine why we weren’t able to advance further. Then we will focus on how to improve."
There are no great answers. Braden Holtby has been the best goalie in the league two years running but was ordinary at times in the postseason. Ovechkin was clearly hindered in the Pittsburgh series by a knee injury it was revealed he suffered when he was hit by Nazem Kadri in the first round against Toronto. The Caps actually lost the one game the Penguins played without Crosby after he was KO'd by Niskanen.
This was their year. It didn't happen again. Forget anybody picking the Caps to ever win a Cup. The hockey world doesn't believe. Do they believe themselves?
The Panthers and Sabres are the only teams without head coaches right now, and Florida has met with University of Denver coach Jim Montgomery and fired Montreal boss Michel Therrien. According to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the Panthers may also want to talk to two Sabres targets in Washington assistant Todd Reirden and Nashville assistant Phil Housley, the former Sabres star. Housley's team, of course, is still playing so any interviews for him would have to wait.
Prior to heading to the Caps, Reirden coached Pittsburgh's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm team for two years before joining Dan Bylsma's staff in the NHL. So new Sabres GM Jason Botterill will be quite familiar with him as well.
Add Botterill to the list
Several readers were surprised to learn Botterill was just the eighth GM in the Sabres' history that dates to 1970. Darcy Regier wasn't the only guy who had the job for a long time. Punch Imlach was the team's original GM and he lasted until his firing on Dec. 4, 1978. John Anderson served six months in place of Imlach before Scotty Bowman was hired for a 7 1/2-year run.
Bowman was gone in December, 1986 and Gerry Meehan replaced him for the next 6 1/2 years. Then came John Muckler for nearly four years. Regier took over on June 11, 1997 and stayed until he was fired on Nov. 13, 2013. Tim Murray was hired Jan. 9, 2014 and fired on April 20; he is the only GM in franchise history to not take his team to the playoffs at least once.
Big Ben in Big D
The Stars signed Ben Bishop to a six-year, $29.5 million contract Friday to fix their longstanding problems in goal. The move has to infuriate Lindy Ruff, who lost his job mostly because GM Jim Nill gave Ruff the two-headed sieve of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi in net and it torpedoed the Stars' hopes.
One of those two will most certainly be bought out. As for the Bishop deal, $19 million comes over the first three years but it carries a $4.9 million cap hit. Bishop will be 36 when the deal ends. It's a bit of a dicey deal for a goaltender but Bishop has a recent run of playoff success and, frankly, Nill had to do something in goal or he was going to follow Ruff out the door next.
Around the boards
---The Oilers' second-round loss this year sure felt like watching the '07 Penguins or the '09 Blackhawks. Those teams fell short but were in the Cup final the next year, with Pittsburgh losing to Detroit and Chicago winning the title for the first time in 49 years. Come the fall, there will be a ton of preseason predictions tabbing Edmonton as the favorite in the West.
---Another shake-your-head note from the Sabres' 78-point season: They were 7-3-2 against the four remaining playoff teams. Buffalo went 4-0-1 against Ottawa, 1-2 vs. Pittsburgh, 1-0-1 vs. Nashville and 1-1 vs. Anaheim. And remember, the Sabres blew a 3-0 lead in one of the two losses to the Penguins and a 4-2 third-period lead in their overtime defeat to the Predators.
---Unheralded keys for the Predators' unlikely run as a No. 8 seed: They're 3-0 thus far in the playoffs in Game One -- all on the road. They were just 17-20-4 away from Bridgestone Arena in the regular season and were 22nd in the league in road points (38). Another one? They have goals from 15 players in their 11 postseason games thus far.
---Another reason the Stanley Cup Playoffs kick the bejeezus out of the NBA playoffs: Until the Washington Wizards' last-second win over the Boston Celtics Friday night, NBA teams were 0-10 this playoff year facing elimination at home. By contrast, NHL teams are 5-7 in the same spot because there's so much more parity in the sport at this point.